Impartiality and the Bahrain Commission

The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) — created by Bahraini royal decree earlier this year to investigate the government’s crackdown on protesters — closed its office two weeks ago after a mob reportedly infiltrated the building and assaulted staff members.

The incident was the culmination of a dispute that began after a Reuters article led many Bahrainis to question the commission’s impartiality.  According to the article, M. Cherif Bassiouni, BICI’s chairman, said of the investigation:

It leads me to believe that on [the Interior Minister’s] part there was never a policy of excessive use of force or torture...that doesn't mean it didn't happen. I think it was a case of people at the lower level acting, and there not being an effective chain of communication, control.

A heated exchange of public letters resulted between the Bahrain Center for Human Rights — which accused Bassiouni of “espous[ing] the view of the political establishment whilst paying lip-service to the concept of a fair and independent enquiry” — and Bassiouni, who defended the commission’s work, legitimacy, and impartiality.

The episode demonstrates the importance of impartiality and perceptions of impartiality for investigative commissions.  As President Clinton wrote of the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee, created during the Second Intifada, “the Committee should ensure that it is, and is perceived to be, fair and impartial.”  And as Bassiouni wrote in 2001:

One of the fundamental struggles of civilization is to put an end to these crimes.  One way of accomplishing this goal is to put an end to impunity.  But to do so we must ensure that the processes of discovering truth and achieving justice, albeit relative, is not politically compromised as to its impartiality, fairness, and effectiveness.

The BICI mandate (which you can download here) also stresses the importance of the commission’s independence, stating:

The Commission is wholly independent of the Government of Bahrain or of any other government, and the members of the Commission are acting in their personal capacity and do not represent any government, international organization, public official or any economic or political interest.

But the history of investigative commissions shows that they sometimes fall prey to perceived, and actual, partiality issues.  Priscilla Hayner recounts several such stories in her book, Unspeakable Truths: Transitional Justice and the Challenge of Truth Commissions, and in a 1994 Human Rights Quarterly article from which she adapted the book.  As Hayner notes, Idi Amin created a commission in 1974 to investigate disappearances perpetrated by his government but never published the report and adopted none of its recommendations. The African National Congress (ANC) created a commission in 1992 to investigate its own detention policies but placed two ANC members on the commission, leading some to question the commission’s independence. And the 1991 Truth Commission on El Salvador attempted to avoid accusations of partiality by staffing its commission with people who had no experience working on El Salvadoran human rights issues, thus facing critiques of its effectiveness. 

The Bahraini government sought to address the issue by staffing the commission with, as the BICI mandate states,“five eminent and internationally renowned members, whose experience and reputation worldwide is well established.”  But the events of the past month demonstrate that commission member selection is just one of many factors that shape public perceptions of a commission’s impartiality.

Nevertheless, BICI’s work continues.  And Al Wefaq — the largest Bahraini opposition party, which walked out of the government-sponsored national dialogue last month — condemned the attack on BICI’s office and expressed support for the commission. 

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